Bruce Milne in an address entitled ‘Preaching Hell‘ said ‘We preach hell because we have no choice.’ Not least because Jesus did:
As to his teaching, we should make as clear as we can that Jesus Christ believed in the reality of hell and warned his hearers regularly concerning it. The one sinless mind in all history, he who had his being in eternity in the bosom of the Father, who told what he had seen in his Father’s presence, spoke and taught repeatedly concerning hell. In the words of C.H. Spurgeon:
You must confess, my dear hearers, that Jesus Christ was the most tender-hearted of men. Never was there one with so sympathetic a disposition. But for all that, not all the prophets put together, though some of them be stern as Elijah, can equal in thundershot the sound of that still voice of him, who albeit he did not cry or lift up his voice in the streets, spoke more of hell and the wrath to come than any that preceded him.
The following is an edited section of a sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2 at City Church a few weeks ago on the knotty issue of when and in what way Jesus will return.
Maybe you remember Harold Camping, in the news last year, who predicted that Christ would come in judgement on 21st May 2011. When by May 23rd it hadn’t happened Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that Jesus would come again on October 21, 2011. Camping was wrong and no doubt there were lots of spiritual casualties too.
Something strange was going on at the church in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2v.1-2) Paul is writing to them about the coming of our Lord and v.2 the church has become unsettled and alarmed. The word unsettled has the idea of being ‘shaken from your mind’ like a ship being forced from its mooring by a storm and bobbing about in the high seas. The Thessalonians were in danger of being ‘all at sea’.
Something was getting to the Thessalonians and v.2 it seemed to be some report or prophecy saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. We don’t really know exactly what was going on here but 2 options are our best guesses.
1) The Greek word ‘already come’ can have the idea of ‘is at hand’. So the AV translation of the verse reads
be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand
It might be that they were thinking that the Lord’s Day was imminent.
2) Or it could be as the NIV translates the word the return of Christ has ‘already come’. Maybe some in the church were teaching that in some sense Christ has come spiritually. But if Christ has come, if the Kingdom of Heaven is powerfully breaking in, why were Christians still suffering so much?
Either translation could be right but if we don’t know maybe we don’t need to know the exact form of the error. Paul’s answer in v.3 seems to answer either way.
But Jesus is not coming yet v.3-4?
Now this is where it all gets difficult. Leon Morris wrote ‘This passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline writings and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to extravagant speculations.’
What do we make of Paul saying that Jesus cannot come until evil gets worse and a certain man of lawless is revealed?
Does this mean Jesus can’t come back today?
Essentially 2 options are open to us. It could be that Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians doesn’t relate directly to us because he was thinking about something that happened in AD70.
1) a prophecy fulfilled in AD70
In 169BC the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies’ captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in the most appalling way. He erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed of all things a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. Many saw this as a fulfilment of a prophesy in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which he describes ‘an abomination that causes desolation.’
But Jesus insisted that although this might have been a fulfilment in part Daniel’s prophecy awaited a further fulfilment. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus tells us that Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem. In AD70 the Romans defeated the Jews the armies entered the temple carrying the emblem of Caesar into the temple and offered sacrifices to their gods. So could the rebellion Paul is prophesying in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the same event? When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians it was still only 50AD and so the timing works. There was still 20 years to go before the destruction of the temple.
Now if the man of lawlessness is Caesar then what Paul says to the Thessalonians in one sense he is not saying to us. To them he is saying something like ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled …Jesus has not come….and he won’t yet come because the Romans haven’t invaded Jerusalem yet..the man of lawlessness is still to come.’
But that wouldn’t be what he is saying to us. To us he’d say ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled because Jesus has not come…but do understand that he could come at any moment because everything that needs to happened has happened.’
So that’s option 1 and the problem with it is that every commentary I read rejected that interpretation for a number of reasons that space doesn’t permit us to discuss. Perhaps the key one is that a number of books of the Bible that are almost certainly written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – especially Revelation and the book of 1 John — still expect the coming of the man of lawlessness or the Antichrist as he is also known. John writes in 1 John 2:18 ‘this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming.’
2) The lawless one is yet to be revealed
If the man of lawlessness was not revealed in AD70 that would mean that what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians he is also saying to us (v.7) that the secret power of lawlessness, evil and opposition to God will be at work in the world until at the very end of history but then there will be one final embodiment of evil who will trigger the return of Christ. God’s plan and timing will decide when the arrival of the man of lawlessness will trigger the return of Christ and at that time the man of lawlessness will be utterly defeated.
Now if you are a suffering Christian somewhere in the world today (like the Thessalonians) then that is of great reassurance. Paul is saying ‘don’t be surprised by the presence of evil. There will be evil in the world right up until the day the Lord returns but God is in control.’
Could Christ come back today?
Firstly, we should admit that these verses are so difficult and Christians disagree on their exact meaning that whatever view we hold we should hold provisionally.
That means that if it is possible (even if we think unlikely) that everything that needs to happen has happened then we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. Wayne Grudem in his chapter on eschatology in his Systematic Theology asks ‘is it possible to be ready for something that we think unlikely to happen in the near future?’ Certainly he says ‘Everyone who wears a seatbelt when driving gets ready for an event he or she thinks to be unlikely.’ The point is because we can’t be sure what will happen, because we don’t know for sure whether this prophecy has been fulfilled, either way we need to be ready.
What the feature on Bell reveals (alongside the cover article focusing on Bell’s book in the previous edition) is the fact that if it’s a tricky business for Christians to grapple with Bell’s new look at the reality or not of hell what we can be pretty sure of is that it’s not just challenging for the church but damaging to our witness to the world.
Here is how Time summarises (inaccurately admitedly) the debate in the book.
‘Is Hell real?..He [Bell] thinks we can’t know, because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory. Some passages say only those who explicitly acknowledge Jesus as Lord will find eternal peace. Others claim that, in Jesus’ own words, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail’ and Jesus’ sacrifice means universal salvation.’
Now I don’t think Bell would want to use the word contradictory to describe Bible texts. He would no doubt prefer to describe texts that teach on heaven and hell as ‘in tension’ and should be left to sit alongside each other in such a way that cannot be resolved by us in this life.
But the damage is done when the world looks in and sees what appears to be an evangelical pastor prefering to talk of salvation as a mystery and the Bible as a book which does not speak clearly about heaven and hell. He goes so far as to say in interview with Time ‘I don’t take a position of certainty because of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.’
That Time includes an evangelical pastor in their top 100 most influential people in the world ought to be good news. The tragedy is that they include Bell because he is an evangelical who prefers to ask questions about final realities and to do so in a public way in the publishling of his book and tour.
The consequence of Bell’s position is, as the Time feature reveals, to leave non-Christians confused as to the message of the church and confused as to whether it’s possible to really know anything from the Bible which appears to be a book of contradictions. After all if a mega-church pastor revels in the ‘contradictions’ of the Bible and finds himself with more questions than answers why should a non-Christian looking in from the outside believe they should arrive at any answers.
It was AW Tozer who said ‘What comes into a person’s mind when they think about God is the most important thing about them.’ Nowhere is that statement more obviously true than in chapter 4 of Bell’s book ‘Love wins’. It is in this chapter that he is at his most controversial and it is his doctrine of God that enables him to consider the possibility that perhaps in the end all will be saved.
What comes into Bell’s mind when he thinks about God is that ‘God is love.’ For Bell that is God’s essential attribute and it shapes the discussion of the chapter.
There is no talk in the chapter for example of God’s holiness and Bell’s decision to single out one attribute to which all others must eventually give way (why else the title of the book) leads to his tentative conclusions that for God to be God almost requires the final salvation of all.
Does God define himself as love above all else?
The book of 1 John is so instructive for us on this matter for in it we find two statements from John about God’s very nature. God is love John tells us in chapter 4 but God is light we are reminded in chapter 1. God in the scripture reveals himself as a God of love but not a God of love only, also a God of holiness. God’s punishment of sin is an outworking of his holiness. If God’s holiness must give way to his love we find ourselves ever-closer to the position of Bell. The problem for Bell is that Jesus never does this and neither do the New Testament authors.
So what happens when one attribute of God is singled out in this way?
Well with his doctrine of God clear in his mind Bell turns to his doctrine of salvation.
Bell does not give us a lot of Bible in this chapter but he does choose to quote Paul and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
Given God is love and given what therefore God wants ‘will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?’
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?
And Bell is absolutely right to recognise that the God of the Bible does get what he wants. We are reminded time and again in scripture that God’s plans and purposes are unstoppable.
In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.
This God doesn’t give up. Ever.
What has the church taught?
So if we only get this life to choose heaven and hell in this life by the response we make to God. If it really is ‘One or the other, forever.’ Then Bell logically concludes ‘God in the end doesn’t get what God wants’
No wonder Bell leaves the door open to what is sometimes called post-mortem salvation. The idead that after death given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state?
Now Bell realises that this will sound heretical to many ears especially coming from a bible-believing evangelical. So it is important for him to establish that his view has a history. It has no such pedigree amongst evangelicals and his abuse of a Martin Luther text in his book to suggest it does is something that has been highlighted by a number of critics notably Carl Trueman. One can only hope that for the sake of integirity it is removed from any future editions.
So with no history of evangelicals adopting such a view Bell turns to the ancient church fathers
Beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who bleive that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.
Bell cites Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysaa and Eusebius in support of his views. It was certainly the case that a number of the fathers held that punishment in hell that was restorative.
Here is an extract from one scholar on the view of the early church on the doctrine of universal salvation:
Early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation.
What brings God glory?
But we find ourselves returning again to the major note of Bell’s book. If God is love then everlasting punishment cannot bring God glory.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.
God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts
If Bell is right on this point then one has to ask could it bring glory to God for Satan to be in hell. If eternal torment does not bring glory to God then how can the torment of angels, created by God as good creatures, bring God glory? Surely Satan given enough time will choose life and does not God’s own glory demand it.
Of course those of us who seek to affirm that God is love but God is also holy see God’s glory made manifest in the salvation of some but also the condemnation of others. Paul in Romans chapter 9 writes:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.
For Paul God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect justice as an expression of his holiness in the punishment of sinners. God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect love in the salvation of sinners. Both reveal God’s glory. One should not be set over the other. Heaven and hell together manifest God’s glory, wisdom and power.
What then do you have to believe to be a Christian?
For Bell ‘you don’t have to believe it [eternal hell] to be a Christian.’ Clearly he regards it as no heresy to believe in a hell in which punishment is finally restorative and he may be right. And if heresy is understood as a denial of the gospel on a par with a rejection of the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection or the trinity he I guess has a point.
But it’s crucial to remember that Bell is asking for a lot more than that. He is asking for this minority view to have an equal place at the table. To be considered a valid option alongside traditional interpretations despite the weight of Biblical evidence against him.
To shun, sensor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
But the tone of the book goes even further. Surely Bell, in presenting his own views in the way he does is not actually arguing that his view is one of a number of valid options but really the only view that presents a true picture of the God of the Bible and the view that alone brings glory to God!
God’s love means human freedom to choose heaven or hell
So will hell eventually be empty? Bell certainly is hopeful but he is not dogmatic. In a sense neither he nor God can decide. For it is the choice of every individual, even in hell, to choose.
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides the possibility.
So is Bell a Universalist?
If God is love but human beings have a real freedom then it’s a question he can’t answer. It’s a question no-one can answer.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.
If Bell is not a universalist he should be
The more I’ve reflected on this chapter of the book the more I think that Bell ducks the question in his conclusion and the more unsatisfying I find his final position..
1) Bell has maintained that God wills the salvation of all and he rightly asks can God’s will fail. Surely his will cannot fail.
2) Bell has maintained that the torment of souls in hell cannot bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t
3) Bell believes in the sovereignty of God. Surely such a God knows the end from the beginning. Surely Bell believes, therefore, that God would only make a world in which his will could be finally done.
4) Bell, wisely, is unwilling to be counted as a dogmatic universalist. He cannot find definitive proof in the Scriptures for universal salvation nor can he work out how God will ensure his will is brought to pass. But his doctrine of God should make him an optimistic universalist.
How God’s will will be done he does not know that his will will be done he should be ready to affirm.
Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
Is that how we should think of Hell? A place of conscious eternal torment. Is that really the response of a God of love to those who do not worship him in this life? Is that what Jesus taught? Bell is not so sure.
I have a hard time believing in hell not least because most of my family and friends don’t follow Jesus. There is a part of me that so much wants Bell to be right on Hell.
What does the Bible mean by hell?
Bell argues, perhaps rightly, that the Old Testament picture of what happens after death isn’t very clear. ‘Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a but vague and ‘unworldly’.
In the New Testament the word ‘hell’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus. He takes the word Gehenna which was literally the city dump outside of Jerusalem. The place where rubbish was thrown and a fire continuously burned. The other word used occasionally in the New Testament being ‘Hades’ the greek equivalent of ‘Sheol’ which we find for example in Revelation 1,6, and 20. But actually there isn’t much in the Bible.
‘And that’s it’ says Bell.
So is the concept of hell outdated?
Bell says a resounding ‘No’. At least in that sense Bell is clearly not a universalist.
‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.’
There is too much evil in the world. Think Rwanda. Think rape and murder.
‘I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.’
So Jesus teaches ‘hell’ and Rob Bell believes in ‘hell’. What then are the big theological ideas in Bell’s understanding of Hell.
The two big ideas in Bell’s Hell.
1. Hell is what we do to ourselves
Hell is less the place that God in his judgement consigns those who reject him and more a place that we send ourselves. It is a self-imposed exile from God and all that is good.
‘God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.’
Hell in Bell’s language is ‘a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.’
So far is Bell ready to take this idea that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 that when Abraham says ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to you’ Bell argues ‘the chasm is the rich man’s heart!’
So hell is what I do to myself. It is a subjective experience rather than an objective place of punishment. It is where I experience the torment of my own sin and that means it looks different for all sorts of people.
‘There are all kinds of hells’ says Bell.
‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’
‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’
2. Hell might not be forever
Secondly Bell wants to show that there is still hope for people in hell.
Failure we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.
So he takes us through a most unlikely interpretation of Jesus teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah along with some selected words from the prophets of Israel that promise an end to the judgemtn on hte nation and concludes
‘I list them to simply show how dominant a theme restoration is in the Hebrew Sciptures’.
So what should we conclude about Bell’s hell?
One of the things that make this book a difficult one to weigh up is that Bell is very selective in his use of the Bible. To assess Bell’s book we need to spend as much time considering what he leaves out as we do what he puts it. The sin of omission is as important as the sin of commission.
When a doctrine of hell is formulated without any mention of crucial bible texts that speak directly on the subject we have to be concerned and that is what we find here.
God has given us the whole Bible for a reason, that we might know his mind. We need all of scripture to know God’s will.
A number of years ago Jim Packer said in words that seem so apt to describe our concerns about Bell’s book ‘part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’
And that is what we find with Bell on hell.
So where in Bell’s chapter do we find , for example, the book of Romans?
Where in his book is there mention of Romans 2:5-11?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Where in the book does he mention 2 Thess 1:8-9?
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
Where does he deal with the most sobering text on hell in the New Testament, Revelation 14:9-12
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
These texts are conspicuous by their absence and yet they change everything.
Hell is a place of punishment. It is the final expression of the holy and righteous anger of God against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).
Hell is forever. Not because I like that fact but because the texts that Bell omits teach that fact.
Hell is the place of conscious eternal torment. There is no rest day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11).
In this chapter Bell sets the tone for the remained of the book and builds the platform on which his hopeful-universalism will be built.
Bell wants us to think of hell as where I put myself rather than where God sends me. He wants me to think that if I change (repent) in hell then because it is a self-imposed exile there may be a way back. If the chasm that separates heaven and hell is not the one fixed by God (objective) for all eternity but exists in my heart (subjective) then hell can reform me and maybe all will be free.
The problem for us all is that Bell’s view of hell falls so far short of what the Bible teaches.
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